Director Fernando Frias new film, Mexican Oscar hopeful “I’m No Longer Here,” gives audiences a look into the American dream, and his deconstruction of it.
Rather than cast well-known actors, Frias relied on his casting director to find non-actors to help tell the story of Ulises, played by Juan Daniel Garcia Treviño who goes on a journey from Monterrey, Mexico to New York for a new life, except his American dream isn’t all it’s expected to be.
Frias teamed with cinematographer Damien Garcia to tell the story of Ulises’ journey as he yearns to connect with Mexico.
Frias and Garcia spoke with Variety about the visual language of the film, which is Mexico’s entry for international feature film at the Oscars.
What conversations did the two of you have about portraying the two worlds in the film, especially the world of Monterrey, Mexico?
Damien Garcia: He showed me a lot of music, a lot of cumbia music and a lot of photos that he had taken in Monterrey.
Fernando Frias: We shared a list of three or four stylistic things that we didn’t want to do. We didn’t break down colors.
Instead, we were talking about films and literature that we liked. Damien also works in sound, so he would say make sounds and gestures, and it would make sense. The photography of the film anchors it, you’ll see that the camera rarely moves.
It’s solid and yet very smooth at the same time, almost like a reflection — which is what the story is.
The other world is New York, and a gritty New York, but also a deconstruction of the American dream. This character has come to America and doesn’t speak English, and he’s mocked for how he looks, as he struggles to find his way around this new home. What went into your casting?
Frias: I knew it was going to be a challenge, but I knew I was in good hands with the casting director, Bernardo Velasco. He did an amazing job with the kids. Their talent is undeniable, but it was great seeing how they learned to land on their marks.
Garcia: We used the uncertainty of the character more than the idea of following the American dream. We tried to be lost with him and amazed as he experienced this different environment, and you see that in the New York part.
Fernando captured what it was like to see New York for the first time, and the side that kicks you in the face. You see how disoriented he is when he’s there.
In New York or Jackson Heights, I love the repetition of the phone booth where our lead character is trying to connect to his family in Monterrey.
Frias: Repetition indeed is part of the whole language. In Mexico, you can see this wall, and it has the name of a politician with a campaign.
The second time you see it, it’s just a clock to show the passing of time. It’s disrespected by the gangs. And the last time you see it, it has the letter of the new cartel in town.
With the phones, there were more scenes, but I learned the best way to show this connection was by showing him being disconnected.
I found this phone booth in New York with the subway behind it, but what struck me was the vending machine with the toy guns and grenades.
Music in the film is a character in itself from cumbia to the actual score, what did you discuss about it?
Frias: It’s the character’s biggest passion and what defines him. Music accompanies him, reminding him of his childhood. It helps him, and something he embraces.
The idea of it is that it is an essential part of the character and his passion in life that we wanted to stick with it.
The music is also meant to last five minutes, but we had them last between five to 10 minutes because we slowed the songs down. It was a metaphor for the character because you don’t want the music to end because we don’t know what’s next. There might be a future or not, it’s not looking good and there are no opportunities and no social upward mobility.